Breathing lessons (I) - By: . . | Dailytrust

Breathing lessons (I)

By Huzaifa Jega


Clearly, our brains are hardwired for sectional predisposition or partisanship – and how that skews our perceptions in public life is becoming clear too, especially in the light of recent events in the country. The Nnamdi Kanu/IPOB saga, for instance, is underscoring just how blind the “us-versus-them” paradigm can make people when they try to process political information. Once this sectional mentality kicks in, the brain almost automatically pre-filters facts – even noncontroversial ones – that offend our political sensibilities.

The sociology of human civilisation has painstakingly made homogeneity the primary anchor of social, intellectual, political and spiritual identities over millions of years of social evolution. The Law of Survival has also taught man, by blood and iron, that security is the one overriding sacrament that can never be compromised on – and that even an enlightened awareness can be subordinated to the base impulses of primordiality. Homogeneity aggregates the will of a community into a unified force streamlined accordingly in the pursuit of common interests; hence it is the most reliable index of security. Man wants to be able to gather his mind and his strengths, address weaknesses and threats with a view to growing ‘have’ or ‘become’, in obeisance to that compulsive objective of evolution towards something that is of greater value in the grand scheme of nature – maybe something in tune with the idea of Nietzsche’s Ubermensche.

The Theory of Evolution suggests that life began in the ‘soupy seas’ and therefore the first marine creature that emerged on land to sire terrestrial life had to learn to breathe anew or die. Akin to this physiological adaptation, evidence is mounting to the effect that humanity is at the threshold of a great sociological evolutionary bridge – the type that may warrant a new philosophical adaptation on the pain of extinction. Perhaps I am simply parroting my own subjective understanding of biology and its social auxiliaries. But what if this hypothesis is true?

A new set of civil principles must hence guide human social interactions if it is to survive. Once you trip the livewire of human sectional identity – this trigger, this cue, you become a part of the ‘us-versus-them,’ equation – it’s almost like one’s consciousness becomes re-coordinated in how it views people and ideas. Our tendency towards sectional partisanship is itself a product of evolution – forming groups is how early humans survived. That’s helpful when trying to master a difficult environment with prehistoric technology or the lack thereof. It’s less so when trying to foster a functional society in today’s Nigeria.

Understanding the other side’s point of view, even if one disagrees with it, is central to compromise, policymaking, and any hope for civility in civic life. So if our brains are blinding us to information that challenges our sectional predisposition, how can we ever hope to find common ground? It’s a challenge that is stumping both the masses and the leadership that represents them. Policy decisions, administrative responsibilities and other state functions are functions in name only – opportunities for politicians and sectional demagogues to grandstand rather than talk with each other. And the political discussion, even among those well versed in the issues, largely exists in parallel red and blue universes, mental spheres with few or no common facts to serve as starting points.

But rather than despair, we can see the causes of this as reason for hope, raising tantalising prospects; with enough understanding of what exactly makes us so vulnerable to partisanship, can we reshape our political environment to access the better profiles of our nature?

Currently, ongoing research is testing one of partisanship’s more frightening features which its tendency for allowing us, even pushing us, to dehumanise those we categorise as “them”. The willingness of human beings to dehumanise is often mentioned alongside some of the darkest chapters of history – the Nazi Holocaust, the genocide in Rwanda and yes… the Biafra Civil War – when political establishments went to great lengths to build anger and animosity against “the other”. In our own case as Nigerians, much relies on a personal/sectional identity reinforced since birth.

But to create the base “us and them” structure, none of that is needed. The brain is so hardwired to build such groups that anyone on the street can instantly become partisan.

And it happens subconsciously too – once you are primed by something, and it could be the flimsiest of triggers, to be ‘one thing’, you become dyed-in-the-wool against the ‘other thing’.   Nothing needs to be at stake. But within moments, instant-partisans will like their compatriots better than they like the other guys.

You are more likely to look at someone who shares the same beliefs and values with a human face – so to speak. The other side responds the same way. One would also be inclined more towards sympathising and empathising with people they share a certain part of their identity with – that is the reason, I suppose, you find more listening ears, better concurrence and the works in the demographic cluster you belong to in terms of personal identity. That is why, I suppose, Nnamdi Kanu’s cause is a hit with the Igbo section of the Nigerian population but an anathema to the collective consciousness of the incipient Nigerian nation.

But when it comes to politics, how troubled should we be by this reality? Nigeria’s sectional divide is as old as its independence from the British in 1960 or even its very foundation in 1914. It is neither feasible nor desirable to hope for a broad-based national consensus on every issue. Even if we all worked from the same set of facts, and even if we all understood those facts perfectly, differences of opinion would – and should – remain.

Those opinions are not the problem – the trouble is when we are so blinded by our partisanship that it overrides reason, and apparently that is happening all the time. So, where do we go from here?


Huzaifa Jega wrote this piece from Abuja